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Overzealous Proselytizers Should Back Off

Column by Brett Altschul
Associate News Editor

In an intense environment like MIT, the spiritual life of students probably suffers. Fortunately, there are many religious options readily available to students. However, I'm increasingly bothered by the fact that some of these groups are more trouble to non-members than assistance to members.

I can't claim to have any data on how much good these groups do their members. That's a wholly subjective piece of data anyway. I'm sure that the collections of students I see sitting in Lobby 10 singing religious hymns are enjoying themselves and that their faith is a real asset to them. More than once, just the sound of singing in the drab halls of MIT has helped brighten my spirits. I commend these people for their genuinely worthwhile activities.

However, while traversing the Infinite Corridor, I also face another kind of religious organization, much more common, and often much less savory. The people who wait for passers-by, hoping to convert them to their own faith.

I've been stopped by these religious proselytizers on several occasions. They always introduce themselves as representatives of a small and friendly religious group on campus. When I meet these people, I always politely state that I'm not interested.

That's where it might turn ugly. About one-third of the time, these missionaries, invariably in pairs, almost invariably male, refuse to accept my answer. Simply reiterating that I'm not interested has never had any effect. These representatives of an allegedly affable local faith continue to pester me.

I admit that at this point in the sequence of events, I stop playing straight with these people. I've tried various lies to get rid of them. I've claimed that I already have a religious group. I've told them that I'm in a terrible rush. This never works either. I'm forced to snub these fellows, just walking away in the midst of our conversation.

In the most extreme example of out-of-control proselytizers, the two men attempted to block off my means of escape. When I started to leave, one of them stepped in front of me, keeping me from walking away. The other moved behind me so that when I turned to return the way I came, that path was no longer available. In the meantime, these guys continued to tell me about how wonderfully friendly their little church was and what a joy it had been for them to be parishioners.

I faked one direction, then ran pell-mell in the other. They followed for a little while but gave up after not too long. Apparently, they now believed I wasn't interested. I considered calling the Campus Police, but I had to walk back the same way in about 10 minutes. I thought I'd give them that much time to make themselves scarce before I summoned the authorities.

I don't bear a grudge against these sort of people in general. In fact, I have a great deal of respect for the majority of them. I've seen students who they approach ignore them totally. Worse, I've seen these earnest, pious men mocked and derided. That's completely inappropriate behavior. I am always polite to these people at the outset, and if they accept my answer, I usually wish them luck in their search for interested students. Other students should treat these people with the same respect, whether or not they are interested in the offer they're making.

On the other hand, the people searching for converts need to practice tact as well. Most of them do, even in the face of the kind a abuse they take. I applaud them for this. However, the rotten few make a very bad impression. I get a little knot in the pit of my stomach now whenever I'm approached; before speaking to people, I make sure I've got a viable escape route.

The religious groups at and around MIT serve a very useful purpose for their members. However, all these members need to accept that these organizations aren't for everyone. Most of them already do, but a few need to respect the decisions of those of us who aren't interested.